Chicago Blues: Intangible Heritage

Howard Reich had an interesting article in the Tribune the other day about the loss of three great Blues statesmen in 2011: Hubert Sumlin (age 80), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (age 96) and Pinetop Perkins (age 97). The article “Twilight of the Blues” laments the loss of a once-vibrant local cultural expression to an esoteric rarity along the lines of Gregorian chant; Appalachian folk and Bee Gees’ disco. I blog a lot about the important role that intangible heritage plays in modern heritage conservation, and how international charters over the last two decades have started to embrace this phenomenon and I recalled how in 1987 the French newspaper Le Monde celebrated Chicago’s two great contributions to world culture: the blues and architecture.

Some might argue that Chicago architecture is not as innovative and lively as it once was, but there is still architectural vitality here and it still makes the papers and television and internet, whereas the blues has become a sort of quaint commodity you have to seek out – we have a couple big blues clubs on North Halsted that cater to tourists, and heck, I even played there one night many years ago, but the classic south and west side clubs that the Rolling Stones and others sought out in the 1960s and 1970s are mostly gone. House and rap replaced the blues as a folk expression decades ago.

Maxwell Street, April 2001.
The challenge of preserving intangible heritage is being addressed by blues camps led by Fernando Jones, and I recalled meeting him 20 years ago when he came to my office at Landmarks Illinois with his book “I Was There When The Blues Were Red Hot” and his enthusiasm for preserving this incredible aspect of Chicago’s – and the world’s – cultural heritage. I am sure I disappointed him then for I was focused on architecture and buildings and had no inkling about saving intangible cultural heritage.

Palm Tavern in its heyday
This isn’t just about prophets without honor in their own country, although it was always that way. When the Rolling Stones visited – and recorded in – 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in the 1960s, they had more respect for bluesmen than Chicagoans did at the time, and it was Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that paid for Sumlin’s funeral this month. I suppose it was that way for some of our architectural heroes like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright – ostracized from the city or out of the mainstream for key parts of their professional careers.

Chess Records/Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation: tangible and intangible heritage at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue
What does it mean? In part it verifies the importance in heritage conservation of addressing both tangible and intangible heritage: both arise as phenomena with the 19th century rise of industrialization and urbanization and both reflect the loss that we experience when we cross the line from tradition and community to modernity and commodity. Culture is no longer a communal product but a consumer product. It is more than fashion, and yes, the blues lives on in rock and roll just as Wright’s Prairie Houses lived on in bungalows and foursquares, but it is that sense of loss that leads to the impulse to preserve. It is never preserved in the sense of being the same or even looking or feeling the same: tangible and intangible heritage are preserved as understandings of significance; elements of civic or communal identity and rootedness; and repurposed places of remembrance. Heritage conservation is more than memorialization and addressing the sense of loss; it is attempting to bridge the gulfs that can open in society.

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